International study calls for investment
in Great Lakes/St. Lawrence system

A laker exiting Lake Superior passes through the Soo Locks. The study said, ‘After 50 to 75 years of service, the system of locks and channels shows wear and tear from the several hundred thousand vessel transits.’ (Marge Beaver/Photography Plus)

A study of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway has concluded the inland maritime system can continue to fill its role of serving traditional North American industries, while capturing some of the growth in container traffic in the region.

Future success, however, will require the system to provide the infrastructure that shippers need to reap the benefits of “multi-modal integration, flexibility and cost-competitiveness.” It will also require the federal, state and provincial governments in the United States and Canada to make the necessary investments to maintain and expand the complex infrastructure of locks, canals and waterway depths.

Released in November, the study was produced by seven federal departments and agencies in the U.S. and Canada “to study and set out observations and key considerations” for the future success of the waterway.

The system stretches 2,342 miles from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the Canadian Maritimes to Duluth, Minn., near the western end of Lake Superior. A ship navigating the entire length inland to Duluth must be raised 602 feet through a series of locks and canals built to overcome rapids and large elevation changes, such as 326 feet at Niagara Falls.

The section eastward from Montreal to the Atlantic is open all year. West of Montreal ice conditions force the Seaway to close for the winter. For example, the Soo Locks connecting Lake Huron with Lake Superior closed Jan. 17, 2008 and will reopen March 25.

Infrastructure reliability

Reliability of the system is one of the most important factors to ensure shippers do not encounter vessel stoppages or slowdowns. The study noted that some of the locks and canals are as much as 75 years old. With the two exceptions of the Welland Canal’s flight locks that bypass Niagara Falls and the Sault Ste. Marie dual-lock chambers, the other locks provide just a single route through them, so any failure would have far-reaching effects.

The study assessed the condition of critical system components. A lock structure consists of approach walls, water-level control structures, the lock itself, road and railway bridges and tunnels. The study found that “overall, the system has held up reasonably well. Each lock region, however, has several critical components that have been rated as high priority and in need of repair, rehabilitation and/or replacement. The majority of components are still serviceable.”

The study pointed to the need for more investment in the infrastructure. “After 50 to 75 years of service, the system of locks and channels shows wear and tear from the several hundred thousand vessel transits. As the system ages, the demands of maintenance grow, as do its costs.”

Environmental factors

The study reviewed environmental concerns about the quality of the Great Lakes water caused by all landside and vessel pollution sources. The viability of future shipping on the system will require action on several issues. Ballast water “should be managed in a way that prevents the inadvertent introduction and transmission of non-indigenous invasive species.” Damaging vessel air emissions should be reduced “through the use of new fuels, new technologies or different navigational practices.” The impacts of vessel wakes and pressure waves under the ice in winter should be minimized on islands and in narrow channels.

Water levels are always an issue for shippers. The GLSLS study noted, “The ongoing operation of the navigation system relies, in part, on the regulation of water levels and flows within the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River region.” It referred to the effects of past dredging programs, one of which on the St. Clair River “has permanently lowered the water levels of lakes Huron and Michigan by 15 inches.” An unintended effect of the St. Clair project was continual erosion resulting in a reported diversion of 2.5 billion gallons a day from Lake Michigan and Lake Huron to the lower lakes and the sea.

A related issue, the study noted, is the growing pressure for diversion of lake water. At present, “There are three primary water diversion locations one of which, the Chicago diversion, directs water out of Lake Michigan and eventually into the Mississippi River for purposes of sanitation, navigation and hydroelectric production.”

For shippers, sufficient water levels are a critical issue particularly as the lakes are again in a period of falling water levels. According to the Lake Carriers Association, on average the bulk carriers must carry 270 tons less for each inch the water levels drop. At the Soo Locks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted that in 2007 tonnage was down largely because of low water levels. By late October 2007, Lake Ontario was about 7 inches lower than a year earlier.

Changing economic issues

The study noted that carriers were adversely affected in more recent years by the fall of grain exports to Europe and the decline of U.S. industries, notably steel. The study considered how the Great Lakes and Seaway could generate more container traffic moving to or from the Midwest. One scenario involved starting service with small ships and moving to larger vessels as business developed and giving shippers discounts to compensate them for the need to switch carriers during the winter when the system closes down. The key would be to provide “above all reliability, shipment time and cost.”

By Professional Mariner Staff